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PDI Editorial: Drowning in neglect, corruption

Drowning in neglect, corruption
Philippine Daily Inquirer / Editorial April 04, 2023

A spate of investigations will undoubtedly ensue after the latest maritime disaster claimed the lives of at least 28 people when a Jolo-bound passenger ferry caught fire in the waters off Basilan last week. Amid anguished cries from survivors and victims’ families, the search for accountability and justice will commence. But as the news headlines fade, the nation will move on to other pressing problems … until the next disaster strikes and shocks the collective psyche.

In every disaster that results in a high death toll, the perennial problems are laid bare before the country and the world, and yet we never learn.

When the MV Lady Mary Joy 3 caught fire at about midnight on March 29, less than two hours into its seven-hour trip from Zamboanga port, the sleeping passengers were awakened by smoke and pandemonium. The next few days revealed the extent of this latest tragedy: 28 dead, 32 missing, and 227 survivors. Of those who perished, 18 burned to death on the ship’s lower deck while 11 drowned while apparently trying to escape the floating inferno. Initial investigation indicated that a defective light bulb in an air-conditioned lower deck room sparked the fire that rapidly spread through the 73-meter ferry. But the crew neither warned nor guided them to safety during the incident, survivors recounted.

While authorities have ruled out overcrowding since the ship has a reported capacity of 430 people, there were more people rescued than was listed in the manifest. There were 32 soldiers on board who were not listed, allegedly for security reasons, another instance of how authorities regularly flout the most basic rules, such as the integrity of the passenger manifest.

Over the next few days, investigators should focus on whether the 33-year-old MV Lady Mary Joy 3 remained seaworthy, or safe to sail, and what safety standards its operator and crew failed to observe. Life vests, the most basic safety requirement for sea travel, were apparently not on hand or they would have helped save those who jumped off the ship. That the ferry is owned by the family of a House representative should not hold back authorities from conducting a full-blown investigation and a subsequent filing of charges.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the slow response to the disaster, with local fishermen rescuing the passengers before the Philippine Coast Guard arrived.

We’ve heard of these shortcomings and tragic negligence in numerous ferry fires over the last 36 years. The most deadly was the MV Doña Paz collision with a cargo ship carrying 9,000 barrels of fuel off Mindoro Oriental a few days before Christmas in 1987. Some 4,386 people died, leading Time magazine to call it the “deadliest peacetime maritime disaster of the 20th century,” and National Geographic to describe it as “Asia’s Titanic.” Doña Paz was found carrying close to 4,000 people despite its capacity for only 1,518 passengers. Its crew were also not at their posts when the collision happened. The captain was watching a movie in his cabin while the other officers were drinking beer or watching TV. The crew failed to guide passengers for evacuation, life vests were unavailable, and no distress signal was sent out. Worse, the cargo ship was found to be unseaworthy and operating without a license.

The Basilan ferry fire happened on the heels of the massive oil spill off the coast of Oriental Mindoro caused by the sinking of tanker Princess Empress, which reportedly had a questionable certificate to operate.

It is a culture of corruption that enables unseaworthy vessels to operate, unscrupulous operators to overcrowd their ships and ignore safety standards on board, and complacent government agencies to be negligent in their regulatory functions to ensure safe transport. It’s a triple whammy that has led to avoidable tragedies and the unnecessary death of so many people.

As the agency in charge of the domestic maritime industry, the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) needs to be overhauled and made accountable for the many disasters arising from routine violations of operational rules and safety requirements. Obviously, Marina is unable to perform the fundamental task of ensuring that passenger and cargo vessels are seaworthy. Shouldn’t heads roll for this latest neglect of its mandate? If this agency is utterly inutile, what body can be tapped or formed to really undertake a strict inspection of these vessels?

The government should also review and update the requirements for granting certificates of public convenience, as the current 25-year validity could probably explain why many unseaworthy vessels are still operating.

It is high time to do away with the prevailing Filipino culture of “puede na” or “bahala na,” of making do with whatever is available or stretching things beyond limit that permeates our individual, social, and economic life. Otherwise, we’d likely have more floating coffins like MV Doña Paz and MV Lady Mary Joy.